Taking Advantage of the Tournament Bubble

Saturday, 19th August 2017

Just before the paying places in a poker tournament, you will see play slow down and players tighten up. Whether they are conscious of it or not the thought process is, ‘the money is so close now, I’ll just make sure I get into the paying spots before making any big moves’.

Since most players follow this pattern, there is an opportunity to steal some chips and generally increase your chip stack at this point in the game. As long as you are prepared to take on a little risk, there will be many small pots there for the taking.

This article starts with stealing blinds and antes, which is the simplest way of taking advantage of the bubble. Next, re-stealing is covered – this involves coming over the top of someone else’s raise, hopefully winning a bigger pot. Finally, a note on the ‘cooperation play’, including my thoughts on when and when not to ‘check-down’ a hand with a 3rd player all-in.

When the bubble starts depends on the size of the tournament. In a smaller tournament things might not really tighten up until there is just one more player to bust before the money. In a huge tournament there may be as many as 20 or 30 players to go when things start to slow down and people get tighter.


Taking Advantage of the Tournament Bubble – Stealing Blinds

Players tighten up so much at the bubble that stealing blinds by raising from late position becomes very easy. There are usually also antes in play by this stage of a poker tournament – making the steal even more profitable. I like to mix up my raise sizes a little and to not get into a pattern of hitting on the same people every single time. This ensures that I do not get anyone fighting back out of frustration or anger.

When stealing blinds the best stacks to pick on are those who have a comfortable amount of chips and are not either too short-stacked or too deep. The mid-stacks will not want to risk their easy chance to make the money without a hand, and will let the blinds go more easily. While most short stacks will fold to pressure at the bubble, you’ll find the occasional player who feels desperate enough to fight back – especially if they feel that you are raising them light to steal. Big stacks have enough chips to look you up, and if these players suspect that you are stealing they might well put in a big re-raise to turn the pressure back onto you.


Re-Stealing Strategy in Tournament Bubble

Also known as ‘3-betting’, this move is designed to win the blinds and antes plus the full amount of a raise put in by another player. Since many people know that the bubble of a poker tournament is an ideal spot to accumulate chips, you will find certain individuals keep on raising the pot. The chances are that their hand is not strong enough to take too much action. This means that if you are brave enough to make a big re-raise you will often win a nice sized pot. I like to make this move with hands with a little showdown value if called – something like a Queen-Nine, which would not usually be playable, though has some chances if it is called.

If you see a big stack raising every hand then a re-steal is a great way to pick up some chips. If you see a good player in the blinds doing this, it could be because they know that you would raise light to steal blinds from a ‘comfortable stack’ – so your best bet might be to make a 4-bet bluff!


The Cooperation Play

If a short stack goes all-in at the bubble, many times the other players in the hand will check the hand through to showdown, rather than put in any more bets. This is called the ‘cooperation play’ and is perfectly legal as long as it is not discussed between the players (both will understand what is happening, only discussing is would be considered collusion). The advantage of increasing the chances that the small stack busts out is considered to be worth the missed opportunity to gain chips by betting into a side pot.

If you have a strong hand then there is little need to cooperate in this way. The other time you might not want to cooperate is when you are a big stack who is happy with the bubble situation. Since you are happy stealing everyone else’s blinds, it might not suit you to break the bubble and give up your advantage. Here you could keep the bubble going by betting your opponent out of the hand with nothing at all. This is an advanced play, so please make sure you have seen a few bubble situations before attempting this.


Bringing It Together

I like to take a few risks at the bubble, those extra chips and occasional double-up more than make up for the occasional bust. This is particularly the case with today’s ‘shallow’ payouts where a lot of people get just over their buy-in back.

If you mix up steals and re-steals, and keep an eye on situations where a player who knew the strategy could be ‘re-raising light’ then you can use the bubble to your advantage over and over again.